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Open Data in Archaeology

The following guest post is from Stefano Costa at the University of Siena. He is Founder of the IOSA initiative and Coordinator of a new Open Knowledge Foundation Working Group on Open Data in Archaeology.

Archaeological data is often not shared

According to Wikipedia, archaeology is the “science and humanity that studies historical human cultures through the recovery, documentation, analysis, and interpretation of material culture and environmental data, including architecture, artifacts, biofacts, and landscapes”. Phew – that’s a lot of things packed together! Archaeologists are working all over the world, studying the remote past of lost civilizations at restricted archaeological sites, the garbage bin behind your home and everything in between. And archaeologists do their job using a large variety of techniques, methods, theories.

You’ve probably already guessed where I’m going: archaeological research produces a wealth of information about human cultures, and since the 1970s digital documentation has slowly come into use, drawing from nearby disciplines and encouraging wide methodological debates, too. In 2010, a great deal (albeit not all) of archaeological data is ‘born digital’ in the field, library, or lab. This means literally thousands of databases, millions of pictures of finds, excavation contexts and all other stuff.

In theory, this could bring a lot of potential not only to archaeological research per se, but to archaeological knowledge in general. Digital material can be easily reproduced at no cost. But this potential is often not realised, because the vast majority of archaeological information is not shared. Researchers and research groups usually restrict access to their data to a small group of people. In other words, data sharing is not so widespread among archaeologists as one might wish, and dissemination of research is still mostly based on traditional pre-digital means like journal articles, books and the like.

In addition to opening up access to journal articles for print, new digital technologies allow archaeologists to go beyond traditional ways of disseminating scholarly research. This includes new ways of collaborating and publishing findings in ‘real time’ on the web using blogs, wikis and the like. Also researchers can go beyond PDF files of articles for print, towards machine readable texts and the raw data and other materials underlying research.

Open data in archaeology

To better understand these processes and to encourage others to open up archaeological knowledge, a few weeks ago we started a new Open Knowledge Foundation Working Group on Open Data in Archaeology:

  • We’ve also started a group on CKAN, the Open Knowledge Foundation’s registry of open data:

  • *

If you’d like to get involved with any of this, we encourage you to join our open-archaeology mailing list and introduce yourself!

Why open up archaeological data?

For those who don’t think “why not to share?”, it’s certainly worth exploring some of the possible reasons to share archaeological data.

1. Repeatability, impact factor, and peer review

If you’re on the “hard science” or processual side of the story (e.g. your research involves statistical or spatial analysis, …) you are going to appreciate the repeatability of your process, and formal comparison with other studies. If you’re in academia, and no matter what is theoretical background is, the availability of raw data makes your all of your research more visible and, much like Open Access to literature, it is likely to increase the impact factor of your work. Building knowledge is a complex process that involves putting together
different pieces of information from lots of sources. Also, if your work is based on data collected by others, you will agree that harmonisation of formats will be hard to reach until we have open data.

2. Encouraging unexpected reuse of archaeological data

A radical point of view, and incidentally one that might well stem from current post-processual theories, is that most value brought by open data lies exactly in what others can do with our data that we would never imagine about, thus enabling a true multivocality. “Others” means not only other archaeologists, but includes researchers from akin fields, local communities touched by archaeological research, primary school teachers, Wikipedia editors and Google.

3. Public access to publicly funded research

Not all, but a large part of archaeology is done as public funded research. These days, governments of countries like USA, UK and France are moving towards Open Governmental Data. When archaeological data is just a subset of “public sector information”, the same view can apply and one might eventually say that all non-sensible data (e.g. location of still unearthed archaeological sites) should be made available to the public. This implies to some degree that catalogues of finds from excavated sites or museums are “safe to share” without posing any threat to preservation of heritage. Furthermore, it is well known that preservation works not only by physically avoiding damage to artifacts and landscapes, but also by making them available to the community. Each country might have different law frameworks for the collection and archiving of heritage data, but no one should fail to see that sharing digital representations under an open license just adds value to cultural heritage.

  • Chris Rusbridge

    I’m strongly in favour of Open Data in Archaeology. It was surprising however in this post to see no mention of Internet Archaeology (http://intarch.ac.uk), an eJournal incorporating datasets since 1996 (the first and finest example of an eJournal making extensive use of the Internet’s capabilities). It’s not Open Access, but it is very low cost, and access to content is perpetual once bought. (Disclosure: I was Director of the JISC Programme that funded the journal initially.)

    The second strange omission is the excellent Archaeology Data Service, the only part of the AHDS to continue to receive support from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.

    Your suggestions are important, but it doesn’t seem right to suggest there is nothing existing.

  • http://blogs.thehumanjourney.net/whynot Chris Puttick

    @Chris – And then there is the Open Archaeology initiative over at openarchaeology.net and the work Oxford Archaeology has been doing; but we’re pretty sure Steko knows about those too, he’s just trying desperately to get more archaeologists on board. Do you know I still meet archaeologists who believe, strongly, that the monograph is the definitive record of an archaeological investigation?

  • http://ads.ahds.ac.uk Kieron Niven

    Aside from the already mentioned ADS and Internet Archaeology (I admittedly have a bias in plugging these!) I’d also like to flag up the US Digital Antiquity initiative:

    http://www.digitalantiquity.org

    We (the ADS) are currently involved in a two year project with DA to revise and extend our Guides to Good Practice. DA are also in the process of setting up a US digital archive (tDAR).

    There is also DANS in the Netherlands who archive and disseminate archaeological data alongside other humanities datasets:

    http://www.dans.knaw.nl/en

  • http://okblogfarm.org/members/jwyg/ Jonathan Gray

    @Chris Rusbridge: Thanks for the suggestions! I would note that the new Working Group is focused on material that is open in accordance with the Open Knowledge Definition – i.e. which anyone is free to reuse for any purpose. Would be great to hear if there is any open data available as part of either Internet Archaeology or Archaeology Data Service!

    @Chris Puttick: Indeed, you may have noticed that Stefano has been collating links on the Working Group page! Would be great if you were interested in joining!

    @Kieron Niven: Thanks for the suggestions! Would you consider registering these on CKAN? In particular would be good to have details of licensing and URL for downloading the data.

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  • http://www.archaeogeek.com Archaeogeek

    Most people will have heard me banging the drum about this already, but here we go…

    Commercial archaeologists have a different set of pressures from academic archeologists. It is not fair to say that we do not wish to share data, as quite often we do- it benefits us as much as anyone else. We are, however, limited by what our clients will allow/fund- and they often do not see the point in paying for anything other than the excavation itself. Often they will not pay for submission to the ADS, or any form of publication other than the standard site report.

    Finally, you have to persuade a lot of other people that the data should be shared. The county Historic Environment Records often believe they have some right to “their” data which means no one else can make it available in any other format. This severely limits the usefulness of the data.

    Honestly, I thoroughly support what the working group is trying to do, but it is important to ensure people fully understand the situation. (End rant)

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